Departing Proust country
February 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
If reading In Search of Lost Time is considered an exploration of a world comparably rich to the actual one, putting down the very last volume is rather like having a stolen passport returned. Time regained, indeed. The universe, as large as its collected libraries, looks strangely accessible again & inspired still by having our eyes trained into seeing in Proust’s way.
Compulsive reading creates an inner-topology that is more heimlich than anything you can put your feet on or to which you could pave a path [there are no short-cuts here]. So it is that people of vastly different backgrounds — as readers — could meet in a third place & acknowledge that they have a common friend in young Werther or in Dmitri Karamazov, or that they’ve both feasted alongside Mrs. Ramsay or Odysseus. Kinship is born. In the fight against ignorance & discriminatory thinking/policy, it will be the group whose loyalty to culture surpasses all bonds to nation or tradition that will induce change.
I am trying to express the contagion of joy that comes with understanding [understanding as empathy, as closeness potentially surmounting the requisite distance between two beings, as appreciation void of judgement]. It is also the variety of pleasure that ignites the will to write in Proust’s narrator: “the happiness I experienced now[…] came from an expansion of my mind in which th[e] past was reshaped & re-actualised, & this gave me, though unfortunately only for a moment, something of permanent value. I would have liked to bequeath it to those whom I could have enriched with my treasure” (Time Regained 346). There is no doubt in Proust’s mind that these are probably not people of his time, nor are they necessarily French — it is a mine available to all & any who choose to descend into his work.
We feel quite sure that our wisdom begins where that of the author ends, & we would like to have him give us answers, while all he can do is give us desires. & these desires he can arouse in us only by making us contemplate the supreme beauty which the last effort of his art has permitted him to reach. (‘Sur la lecture’ 35)
Delight as motive for creation is precisely what brings ceremony [beauty as weight] to In Search of Lost Time. “But all the same, when a living creature is so badly constituted (& perhaps it is natural for man to be that creature) that he cannot love without suffering, & that he needs to suffer in order to learn truths, the life of such a creature must in the end be very tedious” (Time Regained 218). Tied to these movements, & to the more secure one toward the grave, pleasure is the only enlightenment/elevation/elegance worthy of mind or time. All the more silly are we who take our pleasure hunched over a phrase, who seem unaware of the lightness of living — yet herein is the contradiction: on account of their proximity to false weight, readers better understand mortal lightness.
It is the authors contemporary to Proust that dramatise this conflict best, for they still struggle with suffocating their training in Romanticism — from which they learn to write a supreme meaning for themselves. In a bid toward modernity, perhaps starting much earlier with Gustave Flaubert, these writers preference meaninglessness.
Of Proust’s characters, it is Violante of the centrepiece story in Pleasures & Regrets that delineates a general progress from Romanticism to Modernity most clearly. She is from the Styrian countryside, gazing upon already modernised urbanity as a better stage against which to set her musical & social talents. Violante moves there. “She continued to offer the garish & desolate spectacle of an existence made for the infinite, little by little reduces almost to a void” (98). It is vanity that modern life encourages, even with its claims of feeding on infinity; progress is perpetuation disguised; habit festers sooner than boredom. Violante does not return to her rural Styria as she had promised.
Soon enough, the border between the old order & the new would be entirely inconspicuous. In Proust’s life, the years between publishing Pleasures & Regrets in 1896, at twenty-five, & The Way by Swann’s in 1913, at forty-two, blurred that border. This is no place to join the speculators on the author’s biography; the shift is clear in the second text. There, it is the bucolic regions that are more plagued with vanity & vainglorious pursuits just as it is the working class in the novel often prove to be pettier than their masters. Nothing of the Romantic pastoral remains; the countryside becomes a place for holidaying not for revery.
The fictive quality of existence, then, takes centre-stage in the comedy of understanding the every day. Until this was achieved, literary studies could not be considered a serious subject for anyone other than an aspiring writer. But once the link was perspicuous, fiction elevated itself into an essayistic form conflated with philosophy. The twentieth century saw a boom in the quantity & quality of literary theory, not surprisingly. [Today, we still have the large herd born of this heritage, but perhaps without the organic link to our lived lives.]
NB: if we accept the perspective of perspectivism, that we inform our surroundings into a conspiracy of our own diverting truth, then it follows that once we have fleshed out the world as we choose to see it, it continues to re-inform the identity that chose it [re-inform ourselves]. That is why we wake up the same person most mornings.
We create a loop & a conviction that people cannot change.
But they do, along with their desires. It is his incapacity to work & his distraction that are the impetus for Proust’s narrator to write; that universality of joy from a richness in understanding. “Real life, life finally uncovered & clarified, the only life in consequence lived to the full, is literature” (Time Regained 204). The quality of full-sensory existence may be referred to as “literature” here, but it should not be taken to be exclusionary or specialist. Only the delight at seeing oneself expand in spirit & in possibility is important. & all people are writing that inner book for themselves: this should be respected.